Kelly Wells and The Folk School of KDHX- Sowing Seeds, Digging Roots, and Harvesting Americana Music in St. Louis
Folk School? St. Louis, home of the Blues? That’s right. In a world that is dominated by high tech gadgets, a fast paced world where everyone needs to get there first, there are some who realize the importance of recognizing a slower time… a time when the end of a hard days work meant heading out to the front porch or a friend’s front porch with your fiddle, guitar, banjo, mandolin, maybe all of these, and relaxing into some tunes. De-stressing, re-charging, chilling, all familiar terms and necessary terms but certainly not new terms. Having been raised in rural Oklahoma, a child of the sixties, my family lived like this in a lot of ways. We jammed old time country and bluegrass, for fun and relaxation, Mom on the guitar, Dad on the French Harp, and we three siblings harmonizing, alway with “In the Pines” kicking it off, always with Dad coming in about three beats late on every measure. I miss those times. Raising my own family through the nineties and into the 2000’s ( that is so freakin’ weird to type!), our family jams just didn’t happen. We were too busy. Video games were the rage for the kids. Our folk jams were with friends maybe a weekend a month. My daughter got caught up in the fast lane and never looked back. My son, on the other hand, went back and forth between video games and good music. He still does that.
Several years ago I first heard “Daddy What’s A Train” by Utah Phillips. It struck a chord with me. The steamers are novelty now, replaced by the new streamlined locomotives which seem to be holding their own in the freight business. The old steam engines still make novel trips across the country now and then, a throwback to the good old days- preservation. Could these giant iron horses really go the way of the buffalo? Could real live acoustic music, the music of our heritage really become extinct? Replaced by electronica or even worse, a disco revival? Things we take for granted really do disappear. For the last several years we’ve watched bluegrass, old time and punk fuse into what I call thrash grass, high energy acoustic string band music with drums and pulsing energy. Danceable. Bob Dylan’s classic song, “The Times, They Are A Changing” is now a catch phrase in today’s world. “The Times They Have A Changed.” Still, I am reassured that our music is safe and in good hands. The folk process is a second by second, moving, twisting thing, ever evolving to fit the mood of the times and the situation. Yet, the more things change the more they stay the same.
There is still a deep appreciation for the music of our past, our roots, our folk music, just like the old steam trains and steamboats that John Hartford wrote about, kept alive by folks who care. Who said we can’t have our cake and eat it too? I always ate it when I had it and I always will. There is a movement towards preservation of folk music and the enlightenment of the community going on right now in St. Louis, MO. There are people there who are determined to keep it going. Kelly Wells is a mover and a shaker behind the wheel of that Steam Powered folk revival, the KHDX Folk School.
When I first heard about a folk school, I was excited. Excited that there really was such a thing. I’d heard of South Plains Bluegrass College, down yonder in Leveland, TX, so the idea of a folk school wasn’t that far fetched. I was delighted when I found out the Executive Director was someone I knew and now know as a friend, Kelly Wells. I interviewed Kelly, who is a musician/singer/songwriter, instructor, and is currently a member of the duet, “Aching Hearts” with her husband, Ryan Spearman,
(https://www.nodepression.com/profiles/blogs/meet-ryan-spearman-green-strumming-in-st-louis-with-folk-and), a nationally known touring singer/songwriter/multi/instrumentalist/multi-genre artist and Folk School instructor.
EH-Kelly, how did you become a performer and preserver of folk music?
KW- “My upbringing in Memphis and parts of Mississippi gave me a deep sense of community and music. Blues, old country, old hymns, and old songs were a part of everyday life. My father (a southern preacher) and most of my siblings play guitar or mandolin or both and music was always a passion. I was mostly a listener for a long time and I believe that’s an integral part of the community. I fell head-long into old-time and old country when I met Ryan. His band was busking on Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, CO and for the first time, I heard people performing these old, old songs that I’d heard my grandmother sing in that old style. You see, up until that point, I’d not really realized that folks were still performing these songs and tunes. A lot of the folk songs I knew beyond the early ones from my childhood were played by more contemporary bands like The Grateful Dead, Dylan, and others. I knew about those scenes, but I didn’t know about the old-time and bluegrass scenes that young folks all over the country were immersing themselves in. I loved it! It brought together the past and the future. Old music, played by new people in their own style, evolving with each subsequent playing. I didn’t realize at the time, but a deep philosophy of the importance of the music and the evolution of the music was forming for me that serves me well in my role as musician, organizer, programmer, and teacher in the folk music world.”
The couple moved to Ryan’s home area, the St. Louis region, from Colorado in 2008. They immediately found the Folk School. “We were looking for a community of folk musicians and Ryan began teaching and I began volunteering. Folk music education was already important to us and the Folk School provided an outlet for a passion we both had.” Kelly told me. In 2012, Folk School merged with KDHX Community Media, a local community radio station, and began functioning as the education arm of KDHX. (KDHX.org) KDHX is a non-profit arts organization celebrating over 25 years of independent music, art and culture in St. Louis and around the world. The Folk School, The Stage, the Magnolia Café, KDHX.org, and 88.1 FM all work together to form a thriving and well-rounded arts destination committed to building community through media. KDHX is officially an arts destination with a café and music venue for the entire community to enjoy, complete with concerts, film series, and thought-provoking sessions on music and art. The Folk School of KDHX enhances this ever-growing experience, offering music classes, workshops and more year round. The mission of the Folk School of KDHX is to “build community by providing educational programs that promote the learning, teaching, renewal and perpetuation of traditional music and folk arts.”
The Folk School now has an even larger platform to share it’s folk music mission. In 2013 Folk School of KDHX moved to their current location in Grand Center, right down the street from KDHX. This is the third move for the Folk School since it’s inception and now it’s in a permanent location right in the heart of the St. Louis Arts District. The new building is home to many St. Louis architectural signatures like tall ceilings and raw brick walls. Kelly says the space feels warm and creative and is conducive to art and music. She went on to say, “Every effort is being made to create an environment for the arts to thrive in the Grand Center Arts District and I’ve definitely seen that as a positive for the Folk School. Creativity breeds creativity and I love stepping out of the door of the Folk School and being face to face with some of the city’s most engaged arts organizations.” There is also a real effort amongst the organizations toward partnerships and co-production of events that is just going to get better and better. While Kelly and Ryan built their performing careers, Ryan mostly solo and Kelly with the all lady band, “The Lulus”, Kelly’s volunteering turned into a board membership allowing her to become even more involved in programming, events, and strategic planning. When the Executive Director position became available a year later, Kelly moved into that role. Since the merger with KDHX, Kelly has become KDHX’s Engagement Director which includes oversight of Education and the Folk School. The Engagement Director job perfectly combines her interests and strengths. Kelly Wells loves people, music, planning and programming, and administration. Kelly Wells is folk,folks.
EH-So what about this folk school? What do they teach?
KW- “They offer beginner to advanced classes in guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, harmonica, voice and a wide range of ensemble classes.”
These ensemble classes include: Old-time Ensemble, Bluegrass Ensemble, Swing Ensemble and more contemporary classes like Traditions of the Grateful Dead, Wilco Ensemble, Alternative Roots Ensemble, and Beatles Ensemble.
KW- “The goal is to get folks playing music with other folks – that’s when the fun really begins!” Folk School offers about 20 Master Workshops per year. Workshops are two-hour intensive session that focus on a particular skill or instrument. Past offerings include: Fingerstyle Guitar, Monroe Mandolin, By-Ear Harmony Singing, Clogging, Square Dance Calling, and Ozark Fiddle. Students provide their own instruments, but the Folk School also has rental instruments available during each session. Folk School teaches all ages and skill levels from beginner to advanced classes for teens and adults. Folk School has a paid teaching staff of about 15 instructors who offer anywhere from 1-6 classes per session. Folk School’s instructors include some of the area’s top folk musicians with years of experience playing professionally. They offer an intimate knowledge of their instruments as well as passion for sharing that knowledge, being able to distill complex musical concepts, making them accessible to students of all levels.
EH- Tell me how you all are building community?
KW- “Through KDHX, Folk School partners with several local organizations. We offer educational opportunities through the Missouri History Museum, St. Louis Public Library, and OASIS (an organization that provides programming for older adults). We also sponsor music concerts and workshops throughout the region.” Folk School hosts guest instructor for workshops and performances on a regular basis. More rarely, Folk School hosts guest instructors for particular classes and sessions. Folks interested can contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Folk School hosts the Folk School Fiddle Contest yearly during the Folk & Roots Festival. Folk School Fiddle Contest is in its 4th year and many youth, adults, and seniors compete yearly for the title! Folk School is funded by KDHX which is a not-profit community radio station that is funded by memberships, grants, and sponsors.
EH- Do you get grants?
KW- “KDHX applies for and receives a good bit of grant funding for Folk School programming. Our jam sessions, square dances, and Folk & Roots Fest specifically are funded through grants and sponsors.”
EH- Do you award scholarships?
KW- “There are one to two scholarships available during each session for qualifying students.”
EH- What is the length(classroom hours) and duration of an average course?
KW- “Folk School offers 5, 8-week sessions per year. Classes meet once per week for 70 minutes for the 8-week session.” EH-What does a student who completes a course leave the school with?
KW- “Each class has particular skills and techniques on which to focus. The goal is for students to finish the class having mastered those skills, had a great time, and engaged with the folk music community.
EH_ How has creating the Folk and Roots Festival impacted you?
KW- “I think Folk & Roots Festival has provided me with my most memorable Folk School experiences. Folk & Roots Festival allows us to reach outside our general community and connect with folks from around the country. Seeing a theatre full of folks who are enjoying, engaging, and creating community around folk music is an incredibly fulfilling feeling. Connecting good audiences with good, hard-working musicians is one of my ultimate delights!”
EH-Tell me about your KHDX radio show.
KW-I’ve had a radio show on KDHX in St. Louis for about six months now. “Steam-Powered Radio” is my own personal music platform and one that I’m honored to have. My program consists of blues, old country, bluegrass, old-time, Americana and all things folk. I play a hefty amount of old music, but I love to combine it with new music as well. My goal with the program is to show how all this music is connected – how a scratchy old blues tune fits right in with a brand new honky tonk song. Or how an old ballad happens to deal with the same issue as a contemporary bluegrass song. Folk music is music by the people, for the people. It’s reach is broad, it’s subjects are real, and it’s appeal is widespread.”
EH-You and Ryan, as “The Aching Hearts” have a new cd?”
KW-“March 10th, we will release our debut duo album called, Just A Habit which is a mix of old-time, old country, originals, with close harmonies. We both enjoy other musical projects, but it’s been especially fun to bring our experiences to this project!”
EH- What do you see for the future of the KHDX Folk School?
KW- “I envision a steady growth that builds on the great foundation that volunteers, board members, instructors, staff, and community have worked hard to create. I see Folk School of KDHX as a hub of music with community at its heart. I think the future looks great and I’m excited to be a part of it!”
EH-What do you see for the future of folk music?
KW- “Folk Music always has been and always will be. Whether we realize it or not, folk music weaves itself into many aspects of our lives and will continue to be the music of the people, for the people, and by the people. I don’t see that changing in any way. Folk Music evolves with each generation and combines beautifully our roots, our present, and our future. My philosophy of folk music is to listen to and enjoy the old styles and allow for its evolution. You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been, but finding new ways to go and grow is an important aspect of the folk process that I expect to continue.”
Here’s a track written by Kelly Wells and Ryan Spearman, called “Crawling Back to You” from their new album, Just A Habit
Folk school. That’s just cool, like Rock School. Think about your town. Do you have a music scene in your town? I’ll betcha Kelly Wells knows just how to point you in the direction to start a folk school in your area. Contact her and see what’s up.
(KHDX Folk School Roots Festival Fiddling Contest-above)
(left-Ryan Spearman and Kelly Wells)